Hot Takes with the Principal of Strathmore SchoolSeptember 3, 2019
Mr Muthiora (left) with some of the fathers of the boys. PHOTO: Strathmore School
Located in Lavington, Nairobi, Strathmore School was established in 1961. Its mission is to “offer, in collaboration with parents, an all-round education based on academic excellence through strong character building and spiritual growth.”
The boys-only school has 669 students. Of these, 320 are in the primary section, while the secondary section has 349. It is recognised as one of the best schools in Kenya.
We caught up with the principal, Mr John Muthiora, to learn more about what goes into running the establishment.
SERT: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Mr Muthiora: I was born in a village called Ting’ang’a in Kiambu, roughly 10 kilometers from Kiambu Town. When I was about 10 years old, I went to live with my father. He was working at the National Youth Service camp in Naivasha. I started my primary school education there. My father retired when I was in Standard 5, and we went back to Kiambu.
I always dreamt of becoming a teacher. Fortunately, my primary school teachers were excellent role models. My science teacher in Standard 3 particularly stood out. He could draw quite well. I remember a topic he handled on the Plague, a disease that is spread by rats, for which he drew a vivid image of a rat on the board. To this day, I am convinced I saw that rat twitch.
I became a teacher soon after finishing Form 4. I asked a few parents in my neighbourhood whether I could tutor their children after school and on weekends. I realised that I quite enjoyed the job. I also taught in the local secondary schools every holiday when I was in university. During one of those vacation jobs, I was appointed Class Teacher for Form 3. This meant I was one of the senior teachers in the school! It really boosted my confidence and confirmed that I was in the right profession.
I started working at Strathmore School in July 1996, two weeks after finishing my last university exams, almost by accident. I had a friend who was working here but was taking a break to continue his university studies. I asked whether I could hold fort for him for about five and half months. Those months have become 24 years.
SERT: What drew you to Strathmore School?
Mr Muthiora: To be honest, the first thing that drew me to Strathmore was the vacancy my friend left. Having grown up in rural Kenya, I had never heard of Strathmore School until I was halfway through university. Even then, I related with it in much the same way some of us relate with Siberia. After I joined the school, my journey of learning and love with the school began. I feel as if I have always been here. It is the only school in which I have been formally employed.
SERT: Did you ever think you would become a principal?
Mr Muthiora: I never ever imagined I would become a principal. You see, a career teacher imagines himself standing in front of kids in class, making a difference in their lives. The job of a principal is almost like a redirection of this dream. The work of a principal is not the work of an ordinary teacher, and no one is taught to be a principal. Instead, you have to learn the job by watching the others do it. It was not for me.
SERT: When did you become the principal?
Mr Muthiora: I have been the principal since January 2011.
SERT: Is there such a thing as a typical day at work for you?
Mr Muthiora: Strathmore School is an extremely orderly institution. This makes my life and schedules quite predictable and bearable. I am a teacher of English in Form 4. Therefore, my first duty every morning, except on Friday, is to teach for 80 minutes.
Since the school is run collegially, there are very many committees taking care of the various sections and interests. There is a committee for the primary section, secondary section, finance, communications, mentorship, parents’ activities, studies, sports and extracurricular activities.
Most of these committees meet weekly. Therefore, most of my day is spent in meetings. For me, these forums have ceased to sound like meetings. They have become more and more like family coordination get-togethers. They are relaxed and issues oriented.
The principal is also like a firefighter. When emergencies arise, he is looked upon for solutions. These emergencies take many forms: a boy has been injured and a call to the parents has to be made; discipline issues need to be handled; staff welfare matters require resolution; a student in personal moral crisis needs guidance; past students come seeking orientation; a researcher wants to carry out a survey; a teacher needs some professional direction; another school wishes to benchmark; or the admissions office has questions.
This, dealing with the unforeseen or the unplanned, is the more exerting part of a principal’s job. However, these impromptu interactions also tend to generate some of the most edifying and memorable moments of the job.
SERT: As the manager of one of the top-performing schools in the country, how do you handle the pressure to stay at the top?
Mr Muthiora: Luckily, for Strathmore School, success does not hinge on the principal’s personal attributes or intervention. It relies, instead, on the ability to maintain the structures and traditions that give identity to the school. And this is the done by all the people involved in the collegial administration of the school.
I would therefore say that all the success realised at Strathmore School is the fruit of the everyday struggles of many people. The fact that, over the years, the staff and students have been very responsible and extremely proud of their school makes my work as a principal very easy.
Of course, as the principal, I am always keen that students and staff do well, in academics as well as in other fields. One then cannot rule out a few anxious and stressful moments, but such moments rarely become disconcerting.
SERT: Do you feel that the long history of Strathmore School is a burden that prevents you from trying new things?
Mr Muthiora: A rich history and positive tradition cannot be a burden. It is the exact opposite. Every institution that hopes to cultivate a lasting legacy must create a rich history for itself. Moreover, novelty does not always translate into progress.
Having said that, I should add that, at Strathmore, we do not shy away from interrogating our traditions to see whether they are still relevant. Should we find a tenet or tradition that needs to be evaluated, repealed or replaced, we always do what needs to be done.
Thanks to the collegiality in administration, things are discussed, and the input of many people is weighed, before such a decision is made. This way, everybody owns the changes we make.
SERT: Since Strathmore School is founded on Catholic ethos, how is the Catholic faith lived there?
Mr Muthiora: We strive to live our Christian faith in a practical way. You see, faith is not an add-on but rather part of the life of a Christian. In addition, since faith is based on Truth and Truth is, in turn, beautiful, it will naturally enrich one’s life and the lives of others.
Lived this way, it can never stifle anyone, whether they are Christians or not, Catholic or not. Moreover, one of the defining characteristics of the school’s culture is love for freedom and respect for the beliefs of other people. This ensures a peaceful coexistence despite religious differences.
SERT: Every school has its fair share of students that are a little more difficult to deal with than average. How do you handle such students here?
Mr Muthiora: I always remind my teachers that school is not for the good. Instead, school should make people good. God has created each of us different. Each student has gone through different experiences, which have shaped their characters. Some may therefore exhibit certain characteristics that would appear to deviate from the norm.
Strathmore School endeavours to assist such students, and indeed all students, to discover the true meaning of discipline. We have always taught our students that discipline consists in increasing one’s capacity to choose what is right. Looked at from this angle, discipline should lead to freedom. Disciplined students are not captives of their whims, addictions or personal weaknesses.
At Strathmore, discipline is seen as a fruit of continuous formation of students more than a result of fear of punishment. Everyone benefits from this type of formation.
SERT: What makes Strathmore School different from other schools?
Mr Muthiora: Formation! We do not just aim at producing academic giants, we aim at forming and producing good quality human beings.
Since parents have the primary responsibility in this task, we give priority to them. We unapologetically and systematically involve them in the lives of their sons and equip them through parenting seminars and courses, and through academic clinics. Parenting is an extremely important factor in the growth of children, and all important things require a solid training.
The school also spares no resources, both material and human, to form the boys through talks, the mentorship programme and the chaplaincy, among other means. This continuous formation, carried out in an environment of freedom (we have no school prefects, for instance), ensures that we reach each student individually. We are not in mass production. Rather, I like to think of ourselves as sculptors polishing one boy at a time.
We remain grateful to St Josemaria, the founder of Opus Dei and the inspiration behind Strathmore School, for the blueprint upon which a large portion of our educational philosophy and tenets are founded. I still cannot stop marvelling at the profoundness of his vision, so many years after he brought it into the world.
SERT: Has a parent ever told you something about the son and it turned out that they were wildly wrong?
Mr Muthiora: My experience is that the boys understand their parents a lot more than the parents understand them. This information gap has been made more pronounced by the explosion of alternative sources of information for the boys, especially the Internet.
I am always amazed at the number of parents who are not aware of just how exposed their sons are until they are confronted with things the boys have done, written or said. The details, understandably, are too personal for me to share. All I can say is that responsible parents need to be acutely aware of the amount of online presence their sons have.
SERT: What is the weirdest thing you have ever seen a student do in school?
Mr Muthiora: Those are not in short supply. With close to seven hundred energetic and creative boys, something entertaining happens every day. Just for kicks, I remember a lower primary boy waving at me from the rooftop of a classroom one day, blissfully oblivious of the danger to which he exposed himself. I will spare you the details of how he had gotten up there in the first place.
From my office, I have a full view of the Form 1 and Form 2 classrooms. It never ceases to amuse me watching boys at their classroom doors throwing furtive glances and after establishing no one is watching them, sneaking out and then back into class. These moments are a welcome break from my paperwork.
SERT: Do parents sometimes call you at night?
Mr Muthiora: Fortunately, I do not get many such calls. Night calls are generally reserved for class teachers, the transport manager or the heads of sections, who are in charge of discipline.
SERT: Mr Muthiora, thanks for your time and candidness.
Mr Muthiora: Thank you!
Editor’s Note: This interview was held on 7th August 2019 at Strathmore School. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.